MLB playoffs: Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty has chance to make signature October start and add intrigue to NLCS
The Cardinals are down 2-0, and they have their young ace on the mound for Game 3
Across the full sprawl of best-of-seven MLB postseason series, only one team -- the 2004 Red Sox -- has come back from down 3-0 to prevail. The other 36 teams have lost the series in question. If the Cardinals, down 2-0 against the Nationals in the NLCS, don't win Game 3 in Washington on Monday night, then they'll be facing those long odds.
To keep them off the ledge, they'll turn to young right-hander Jack Flaherty. The Cardinals have gotten good starting pitching through the first two games, but their lineup, the even better Nationals' starting pitching and have conspired to limit the Cardinals' offense to a total of one run on four hits through the first two games in St. Louis. With Stephen Strasburg going for the Nats, the assumption is that the Cardinals can't afford to allow many -- or even any -- runs in Game 3.
Fortunately for them, the ace is on the case. Flaherty has of course been on a legendary roll. Over his final 16 starts of the regular season, Flaherty authored an ERA of 0.93 with 130 strikeouts against 24 walks and six home runs allowed in 106 1/3 innings. In a pair of postseason starts, he's got a 2.77 ERA with 16 strikeouts and two walks in 13 innings.
While Flaherty showed ace-grade flashes in his rookie season of 2018, he started out struggling this season. Around the time he leveled up, he swapped out some fastballs for sliders (particularly against the opposite side, even though the slider isn't typically a platoon-busting pitch) and almost completely abandoned his changeup. That's helped him realize his potential over what's becoming an extended stretch of excellence.
So will this be the signature playoff start he seeks? Flaherty pitched well in his NLDS Game 2 start against the Braves, but he allowed three runs in seven innings, which qualifies as a sub-optimal start by his recent standards, and was outdueled by Mike Foltynewicz. In the deciding Game 5 in Atlanta, Flaherty twirled a near-gem, as he allowed one run in six innings and struck out eight. The proper attention did not accrue to Flaherty, however, because the Cardinals put 10 runs on the board before he ever threw a pitch.
The Cardinals won that game 13-1, and afterward the discussion was mostly about why manager Mike Shildt left his ace in to pitch so long with such a massive lead. It was a darn good start, but it's probably not one people will remember.
Game 3, especially given the mounting desperation on the St. Louis side, could be the one people remember. Flaherty, though, will surely be tested. During the regular season, the Nationals ranked second in the NL in run scored and second in OPS. Speaking of OPS, during the regular season all the batters that Flaherty faced had an average OPS of .753. The Nationals this season had an OPS of .796, so theoretically this should be something beyond the customary challenge for him. The Nats' offense was also substantially better at home in 2019. On the other hand, pitchers tend to benefit from familiarity, and the only Nat to see Flaherty more than four times in his career is Brian Dozier (five plate appearances). Dozier, of course, isn't likely to be in the lineup. No Nat has seen Flaherty this season.
Beyond all the numbers, the challenge is for Flaherty to keep the Cardinals in this series. As detailed above, the NLCS is almost certainly over if the Nats win Game 3. But what if Flaherty pitches them to their first win of the series? While 2.7 percent of teams have come back from down 0-3, a much more playable 29.5 percent of teams have come back from down 2-1 in a series. Teams that started the series at home, as the Cardinals did, have come back from down 2-1 25 percent of the time. If Flaherty suffocates one of the best offenses in baseball and infuses the NLCS with some actual intrigue, then that will be his signature postseason start. And if he does that, then it's worth bearing in mind that Flaherty would also be lined up to start a potential Game 7 back in St. Louis.
The Nats are in full control right now, but that can change in a hurry, especially with the likes of Flaherty on the mound.
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